November 14, 2008

Public lands bill looks dead for year

Staff and wire reports
Casper Star-Tribune

CHEYENNE -- A massive lands bill with protections for the Wyoming Range and parts of the Snake River in Wyoming is likely dead for the year.

Supporters said Friday that the bipartisan Omnibus Public Land Management Act apparently fell victim to a filibuster threat by a Republican senator.

The bill would have prohibited any new oil and gas leasing, mining patents or geothermal leasing in a 100-mile-long stretch of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming. It would also protect 387 miles of rivers and streams in the Snake River drainage under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat strongly supports the lands package, but his first priorities in a lame-duck session next week are a planned rescue for the auto industry and extension of unemployment insurance benefits.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn had threatened to filibuster the bill over what he calls its excessive spending.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Friday evening that he intends to fight for the public lands package when the Senate reconvenes in a lame-duck session on Monday.

"There are bills very important to Wyoming in this," he said in a phone interview.

He mentioned the Wyoming Range Legacy Act and the Snake Headwaters Legacy Act, which is under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In addition, the package contains compensation for ranchers for damages done by wolves to their livestock.

"This is 150 bills that are packaged together for a single vote. And it sounds from that report that one senator is holding up the entire package because of certain bills but not all the bills, but everything is being held up," Barrasso said.

In the Wyoming Legislature the package would require 150 separate votes, he noted.

When the lame-duck session was called, Reid said the senate would be back to work on the public lands bill.

"I'm prepared to do that," Barrasso said.

The Wyoming Range Legacy Act, which, in addition to prohibiting new mineral leasing in part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, would allow conservation groups to buy and retire existing energy leases.

The bill is sponsored by Barrasso, based on legislation that the late Sen. Craig Thomas was working on at the time of his death.

The Craig Thomas Snake Headwaters Legacy Act would protect 387 miles of rivers and streams in the Snake River drainage.

Supporters of the legislation had urged Congress to act during the lame-duck session, because some authors of the legislation either retired or weren't re-elected, and their replacements won't be as familiar with the omnibus bill.

The Wyoming measures have the support of conservation organizations, sporting groups, and union and trade organizations, as well as Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Outside Wyoming, legislation would expand wilderness along Oregon's Mount Hood and create a vast new wilderness in Idaho's Owyhee canyons. The bill also would have created wilderness areas in California, Colorado and New Mexico.

Sen. Mike Enzi was with family in Wyoming on Friday evening and could not be reached for comment, according to spokeswoman Elly Pickett.